Carrie by Stephen King

First edition cover

In books I’ve covered on Mewsings before (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Chocky, H M Hoover’s Morrow books), telepathy is associated with childhood, and with reaching out to make a deeper emotional connection than is possible in these books’ often repressive environments. Telekinesis, on the other hand, seems more associated with adolescence (along with poltergeist phenomenon) and the release of long-withheld inner rage, the prime example being Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (published 1974).

The book has a sort of Cinderella-gone-wrong plot. Carrie White is bullied at school by a whole class-full of (morally) ugly sisters, then bullied at home by her wicked un-stepmother of a mother, a woman whose highly judgemental “peculiar religious views” have effectively turned Carrie’s home life into an endless series of sermons on sin:

“Momma was the minister, Carrie the congregation. Services lasted from two to three hours.”

Mrs White refers to her God’s “kind, vengeful hand”, though you have to wonder what God she’s really worshipping when, at one point, she says:

“We know thou bring’st the Eye That Watcheth, the hideous three-lobbed eye…”

If “lobbed” (from a recent paperback edition) is a misprint for “lobed”, then she may actually be invoking the entity that comes for Robert Blake at the end of Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark”, whose last words are “the three-lobed burning eye…”

Carrie showed signs of telekinesis in childhood — when she was a baby, her mother found her levitating a toy over her crib, and there was a (perhaps Haunting of Hill House-inspired) rain of stones on the White house after the child dared to speak to an older girl sunbathing in a neighbouring garden — but things really kick off when Carrie has her first menstrual period in the showers after a school sports lesson and the other girls mock her mercilessly while she, never having been prepared for this by her mother, thinks she’s dying.

One of the girls, Sue Snell, quickly regrets tormenting Carrie, and tries to make up for it by acting as Carrie’s unelected fairy godmother. She convinces her boyfriend, Tommy (they’re both “Popular” with a capital P), to take Carrie to the school prom. Meanwhile, the ugliest of the ugly sisters, Christine Hargensen, is banned from attending the prom after she walks out of a week’s worth of detentions given to her for what was done to Carrie. In revenge, Christine decides she’s going to humiliate Carrie even more, and sees her going to the ball as the perfect opportunity.

Carrie started out as a short story (which King abandoned, until his wife rescued the typescript from the bin and got him to continue), and feels quite light in plot. The text is peppered with newspaper reports, extracts from articles and books, and snippets from the “White Commission Report” held in the aftermath of Carrie’s unleashed rage, which adds a sort of commentary to the events of the plot, and also serves to bulk up the narrative. And the unleashing of Carrie’s rage is a lot lengthier and more destructive than I was expecting, having only seen Brian De Palma’s 1976 film before this read of the book. In the film, Carrie rains destruction on the prom dance hall; in the book, she pretty much destroys the town, spreading fires, bursting fire hydrants, and exploding at least one gas station (which reminded me of a similar scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, a film which also seems to me to be about the bursting out of repressed emotion).

Blood runs throughout the novel. “Blood was always at the root of it, and only blood could expiate it,” Mrs White muses at one point, and she links blood with sexual passion, and so with the “sins” of adolescence, and of being a woman. But “blood” can also mean family, and anger, and the blood that rises to your cheeks when you’re humiliated.

It’s part of the novel’s tragedy that, after a lifetime of constant disparagement and bullying, Carrie doesn’t snap till she’s first been shown a little kindness. It’s not just the fact she’s drenched in pig’s blood in front of the whole school, but the contrast it underlines with the glimpse she gets beforehand of how it might feel to be normal, accepted, even loved.

After Carrie herself, the novel’s most interesting character is Sue Snell, who finds herself taking part in tormenting Carrie even though she knows she shouldn’t, and who is the only “ugly sister” to really try to make up for it. The best and most unexpected part of the novel, for me, occurs near the end, when Sue finds the now terminally-wounded Carrie lying amidst the ruins of a formerly quiet American town. Carrie has, till now, shown a modicum of telepathic ability, but here she finally gets to use it in the same way as Wyndham’s Chrysalids kids and Hoover’s Children of Morrow. Sue allows the dying Carrie into the deepest parts of her mind, in an attempt to convince her she really was trying to be kind, not cruel, in getting Tommy to take her to the prom. Sue feels Carrie uncovering her basest emotions — more than she herself was aware of — but also, most poignantly, remains mentally linked to her as Carrie’s mind fades into a dying babble, and then into death itself, in a far more affecting end than De Palma’s hand-from-the-grave jump:

“The mixture of image and emotion was staggering, indescribable. Blood. Sadness. Fear.”

King gets his equivalent of the “it’s not over yet” ending, too, with hints of another girl, elsewhere in America, growing up with the same ability. Will she be made into a monster like Carrie, by the cruelty of those who are supposed to love her?

It’s quite a good, if light, read, unrelenting in its portrayal of just how destructive (in the emotional as much as the telekinetic sense) and inescapable are the effects of a lifetime of judgement, and psychological and physical abuse, on a child. Although, by the end of it, Carrie has done monstrous things, she’s not the novel’s real monster. That role is played by almost everyone else in the book who doesn’t give her the kindness and understanding she needs, or if they do, do it too late.

The Hollowing by Robert Holdstock

UK cover by Geoff Taylor

The Hollowing (first published in 1993) begins a year after the previous Ryhope Wood book, Lavondyss, and has a brief, baton-passing connection with that book’s characters. Early on, James Keeton, the father of Lavondyss’s protagonist Tallis Keeton, emerges from Ryhope Wood, ragged and wild-looking, a year and fifteen days since he disappeared in search of his still-missing daughter. Obviously broken by this loss (and, no doubt, by his time in the mythic depths of Ryhope), Keeton is taken to a sanatorium, where he’s visited by this book’s main character, Richard Bradley, and Richard’s son Alex, who had something of a connection with Tallis. But Keeton came back clutching one of Tallis’s masks, and when Alex picks it up and looks into it, he opens a “Hollowing” to the heart of Ryhope — a sort of wormhole shortcut by which you can leap from one distant location to another, even one world to another. Alex falls unconscious, and when he recovers, he’s not fully there, only capable of mumbling a few strange words, like “chapel” and “giggler”. Some time later, he disappears, and when his somewhat woody-seeming and highly decomposed body is found at the edge of the wood, Richard and his wife Alice can only mourn for his death. A few years later, though, Richard (now separated from Alice) receives a message from a group of scientists camped in Ryhope Wood, saying they’re in contact with his son and need his help to reach the boy. Alex is not dead, just lost deep in Mythago Wood.

Reluctantly but inevitably, Richard enters the wood, acclimatises to its peculiarities, and arrives at the scientists’ station at Old Stone Hollow to meet its bunch of investigators:

When the Station at Old Stone Hollow had been established, three years ago by the time-standard of the world outside of Ryhope Wood, there had been twenty assorted scientists and anthropologists, all gathered in by Alexander Lytton, all with a specialist field, all made privy to the secrets and oddities of the realm of the wildwood. They had been divided into ten teams of two, but only five of these duets remained extant. Three had disappeared more than two years ago and were presumed dead…

The backstory of the first Ryhope Wood book, Mythago Wood, has a pair of scientists, George Huxley and Edward Wynne-Jones, attempting to use early-20th century instruments to understand the wood’s mythogenic powers, but now we get a whole campful of them. These are not, though, quite the same as The Stone Tape’s band of experts trying to crack the secrets of a haunted room; they’re a bunch of jaded, irritable, and emotionally scarred men and women as far from understanding their object of study as ever, except that they’ve come to know, and be wary of, its many dangers. The station is surrounded by an electronic barrier that repels most mythagos, but also by more traditional warding methods: scarecrows, masks, shields and weapons hung from trees, totem poles. Anything that works. The scientists of Old Stone Hollow are prone to wander into the wood on their own private quests, driven as much by personal stories of loss or need (“Everybody’s looking. Everybody’s seeking. Everybody’s dreaming”) as the desire for scientific understanding. Many have had the experience of going “bosky” — entering so deep into the wood and its mythic world, they lose touch with their modern selves and start to behave like the very myths they’re living among. And they accept this as part of the deal.

One of the leaders of the expedition, a scot named Alexander Lytton, has read George Huxley’s journal and has an obsessive need to somehow make contact with the man himself (even though he knows he’s long dead). He believes the wood was woken to its present active state by George Huxley, and is annoyed that Alex’s destabilising presence is overwriting Huxley’s traces. Alex, Lytton believes, was damaged mentally when he was snatched into the wood. The boy was stripped of the many inner aspects of himself, each becoming a separate mythago, many of them created from his enthusiasm for various myths and legends (he had a particular interest in the tale of Gawain and the Green Knight, but even his interest in dinosaurs has its effect on the wood). Somewhere, though, there’s what Lytton calls the boy’s “protogenomorph”, the “first form of the dreaming mind of the boy”, “the part of him that has waited for you, the part that has been fighting the battle”. Richard, then, has to find his son in the depths of Ryhope Wood and somehow bring him back to wholeness.

One of the new things Holdstock does in The Hollowing is show us the mythically-entangled stories of characters from other parts of the world. There’s Arnauld Lacan, whose entanglement with mythagos began in Brittany where, like the first book’s Stephen Huxley, he fell in love with, and lost, a woman who seems to have been a mythago. More interesting, though, is Helen Silverlock, a Lakota Sioux (Richard is reminded of “Cher from the pop duo Sonny and Cher” — one of the book’s few references to the pop music of its time, it mostly being set in 1967). Her family has been “regularly attacked, abused and destroyed by Coyote”, and she has come to Ryhope in the hope of meeting this particular form of trickster and sorting things out.

The most interesting section of the book, for me, was a longish chapter where Richard, living alone for a while in Old Stone Hollow, encounters a whole ship-load of mythagos, a grizzled crew of cynical Ancient-world warriors with a hold full of plundered wonders and treasures — some of which are living, including a pair of centaurs, a cyclops blacksmith, and the still-singing severed head of Orpheus. This is a gritty, aged version of Jason and his Argonauts, a Jason interested in nothing but gaining and owning treasures, pillaging them wherever his ship lands, and caring nothing for their value except as trophies. In a way, he could be the embodiment of the worst direction the scientists of Old Stone Hollow could go, if they thought of the wood simply as a thing to classify, dissect, and extract exploitable knowledge from. Jason, in this purely possessive aspect, can be seen as the worst possible attitude to take towards the “treasures” of the mythic and imaginative inner worlds. (In many ways, he and his band recall the dark, plundering “Outsider” Christian from the first book.)

US edition, cover by John Jude Palencar, from ISFDB.

In contrast to Jason is Sarin, a woman Jason keeps as one of his items of living plunder in the hold of his ship. She comes from a time when everyone could speak a single language, known as the “Tall Grass language”, as well as each having their own private language (“which they spoke alone, to the moon, or to hidden forces, or to God”). In her time, a great tower was built, stretching high into the sky, before being struck down by the gods as a warning against overreaching arrogance, after which people forgot the Tall Grass language, and could only speak a confusion of their own, secret tongues. Sarin, however, emerged from the fall of the Tower of Babel with her memory of the original language intact, and using it, she can understand and speak all languages, given a little time to work them out. She, in a way, provides a different way of seeing the inner worlds of myth and imagination: as ways to access the one “language” of myth and symbol we all, at some deep level, share, before it’s distorted by individuality and isolation. As Lytton later says of the many mythago-selves Alex was stripped of when he was brought into the wood:

“This is an encyclopaedia of what we have all inherited!”

It’s been a while since I reviewed Mythago Wood and Lavondyss, though I intended to read through the entire series at the time. Lavondyss was just too rich and harrowing an experience to leap straight into another book in the same vein. I’d say The Hollowing is no way near as powerful or focused as Lavondyss, though it’s hard to imagine any author producing another book as powerful as that one. In fact, I found it hard to imagine how Holdstock could ever follow that book, so having his next novel in the Ryhope Wood sequence feel somewhat half-powered is forgivable, even if I would have preferred a more focused story, to make the reading flow a bit better. (I was never drawn back to this book to see what happened next, only to get a bit more reading done.)

The Hollowing’s mythagos are much more fantastic, its world much more plastic, bending and warping far more than Mythago Wood’s did, and so it lacks the first book’s ability to make you feel you were being confronted by living, breathing, often stinking, emanations from a real historical past. It also feels much less connected than Lavondyss did to its main character’s personal darkness, much less singularly focused. Rather, The Hollowing feels like a slice of life in Ryhope Wood — eventful, certainly, but rather scattered and fragmentary. It’s not really clear what Richard Bradley has to do to bring his son back from being lost in the heart of the wood, so for most of the book it feels we’re just sitting around waiting for things to happen. And yes, things happen, but it all feels somewhat disconnected, until, finally, Richard too goes “bosky”, and has his period of living wild in the wood, casting off the shell of his daily self and accessing something more primal. And perhaps this was the necessary step he had to take in order to reach his son, but it still felt that it was something that just happened, rather than something he had any active part in initiating. Still, The Hollowing left me feeling Holdstock has more to say, so I’ll hopefully be reading the next book in the Ryhope Wood sequence soon.